Where does all the recycling go?

As a nation we are getting better at recycling, but how do you feel about your waste going half way around the world to China or Hong Kong after you have done your bit? Do you consider this an environmental paradox or simply better than it ending up in landfill here in the UK? Ethical Superstore tracks the seemingly crazy global movement of our trash.

First, we pop out our rubbish for recycling. Over a third of UK waste is now recycled and when you consider it was a shockingly low 14 per cent two years ago, this is a big leap for a previously apathetic nation.

Then, it gets sorted. After collection it is taken to what is known as a Materials Recycling Facility and sorted either by hand or machine before being taken to manufactures who make it into shiny new products.

Most of our recycling stays within the UK. 82% of our glass waste currently stays here – the majority of it to make new glass bottles and jars – and 75% of aluminium is reprocessed here. 100% of our wood and all of our green waste, unsurprisingly perhaps, stays here too*.

But, some of it gets exported. Paper and plastic currently have the biggest demand for overseas export. Only 51 per cent of paper and 36 per cent of plastic was reprocessed in the UK in 2006*.

Why do we send it overseas? Waste paper and plastic currently fetch the highest prices in Asian countries where virgin materials are scarce, labour is cheap and the manufacturing industry is great. Over 90 per cent of our plastic waste going overseas ends up in Asia – in 2007 we exported over 100 million kilos of plastic to China, and over 300 million kilos to Hong Kong**. Paper is in high demand too. China took nearly two and a half billion kilos in 2007 – over half of our exported waste paper – while India and Indonesia took over 300 million kilos of paper each**.

Does this make sense? Although it seems a vast recycling loop, it is suggested that reprocessing overseas is better than exploiting raw materials (forests for paper and oil for plastic). It also minimises the use of energy during the manufacturing process and prevents waste ending up in landfill here. But, some UK companies do make products from UK waste. Many innovative recycling ideas are coming from the UK. Using only UK waste, a remarkable company – called Remarkable – is making a range of stationery from recycled vending cups – millions of which are disposed of each day, showing that the recycling loop can be smaller.

What about the future? For plastics, UK collection and reprocessing is growing fast. Over half UK households now able to recycle plastic on their doorstep and major reprocessing plants are currently being built in the UK. There is a demand growing from the textile, building and automotive industries to use recycled plastics, while major brands, such as Boots and M&S are looking to use recycled plastics for their new products – this is perhaps the greatest driving force for change.

What are your thoughts on the global trade of waste? It is a solution? Should we aim to reprocess it all here? Share your thoughts below.

* Source: DEFRA.
** Source: HM Revenue & Customs.

Thanks to D’Arcy Norman for the photo. Here is the original.

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  • Marion

    If sending some of our recyclable waste to China etc is valuable to them, rather than us just dumping it on them, then that seems reasonable.

    I am more concerned about what plastics we can and can’t recycle. Where we are living, the council will only take plastic bottles. These seem to be largely nos. 1 and 2 types, so I presume that is what they can easily recycle in this area. Yet lots of other food packaging uses types 1 and 2 plastic, so I really want to put these in my recycling bin too rather than send them to landfill.

    Is the government doing anything about what types of plastic are used for food packaging, and making sure that the industry is working towards increasing the most recyclable types?

    Is it necessary to use types 3, 4, 5 etc for so many things? Are they made from by-products not usable for types 1 and 2? I realise that some types do not match up with some usages, but could more things be made from 1 and 2 if these are the most recyclable?

    At the moment we are being urged to recycle, but more needs to be done to make this a fluid process from the manufacturers through us and into our bins.

    Why is there still a fair amount of plastic not labelled? Why are some labels unnecessarily small, making it difficult to decipher?

    I’ve been washing and saving milk bottle tops and other foil items for years, and it will be very hard to start putting them in the landfill bin. Yet our local council insists that it can no longer take foil. This is very frustrating.

    Apart from these everyday recycling things, we also need to get back to more mending of things, and less obsolescence built into them. It is very annoying to find that you can’t keep your perfectly usable iron working because the manufacturers have made it impossible for you to replace the lead yourself, yet getting it done professionally is often as much as buying a new iron.

  • Anonymous

    I have 2 comments, both about materials which are not recycled by my local authority and which I consider highly wasteful – what happens to tetrapacks and CDs/DVDs and why is no one making something of them?

  • Viv Robinson

    Apart from the ‘normal’ recycling of paper, aluminium cans and foil,glass,cardboard,plastics and waxed cartons,- (My local council (North Lincolnshire) has good facilities for the above plus a composting bin) – I recycle used postage stamps (our local air ambulance), postcards (Guide Dogs for the Blind) clothes etc to charity shops, I recycle waterjugs filters and printer cartridges where I can. Unwanted tools have an outlet via various charities for the third world and my friend and I have car boot sales encouraging our friends to deposit unwanted items with us rather than just having a clear out and throwing stuff in the dustbin. The proceeds are distributed to various charities. How about a facility for old cds? I know these can be sent to charity shops and I do, but sometimes one has cds not of commercial value and as years go by there will be more of these. Where can these be sent? How about a web site where one could type in an item and discover an outlet. Also our old video tapes? I have searched web sites for these but if one’s local coucil does not have a facility for a particular item it appears to be a no-go area.

  • Kat

    The obvious question about plastics is – if plastics have been sent overseas to be recycled – why councils only accept limited amount of types to be recycled? Doesn’t it suggest that they recycle all of it in UK, and if not – why build obstcles for people wishing to contribute to recycling?

  • Bristol city council collects food waste but where does it go? I hope it is composted. Bristol has begun (slowly) to provide recycling plastic bottles and (glory be) Tetra Pak.

  • Anonymous
  • Johann F.Popp

    I am very lucky to have a forward thinking council (Lichfield)who collect and recycle just about everything,but what about tetra-pac and more importantly less packaging to start with! It was easy for the stores to stop carrier bags bacause that actually saves them money, but now they need to work at just supplying the goods with the minimum of waste.

  • Sam

    I think the best solution is to go back to re-usable packaging, with some sort of deposit scheme. I think that the manufacturers responsible for creating the waste should be obliged to offer these schemes.

    Re-use is nearly always better than recycling, and doesn’t require materials to be shipped around the world.

    Giving packaging value will reduce the amount of litter in our countryside, and makes litter picking more rewarding. Many countries do this to great effect, most notably the Netherlands, where they re-use glass and plastic bottles.

    It really bothers me that I have to throw glass bottles into the recycling bin, when they could be re-used at least 20 times , using much less energy than smashing and melting them down.

    I think it’s insane that we pay so much for the privelidge of recycling in this country (through our council tax bills), when in other countries you get paid for re-using!

  • Hello!

    The Laundry is a not-for-profit recycling service for small businesses in central London. We can help you with your CD and DVD recycling by providing a free UK wide service (you just pay for postage). Please go to http://www.thelaundry.biz/cds for the address.

    Happy Recycling!

  • I\’m getting pretty disillusioned by local councils at the moment. They appear to sit on their hands and aren\’t willing to even try to check up on their contractors.

    Basically, the councils award recycling contracts to the lowest bidder and then they turn a blind eye to the fact that in applying a cost saving they\’ve opened up a can of worms.

    So, in return, the supposed recycler, who is simply looking for a profit out of the venture, can\’t remove any additional wastes from an otherwise clean load of say glass bottles, so the whole lot is shipped half way around the world, off-setting the carbon saved by recycling them in the first place.

  • Roy

    We were fed up with the lack of recycling options for our office from the local council, so we use a small local company called Green Deeds who manage all our waste & make sure it is recycled their website is http://www.recycleofficewaste.co.uk its been great for our office everyone joins in!